Rented accommodation not safe to live in – do sharp practices of letting agents exacerbate this?
Households which can afford private rents not only have insecure tenancies but are subject to practices, which make clear the landlord is their customer and not the tenant. Some landlords are committed to providing a fair and safe housing service and yes, some tenants treat properties very badly. However, many tenants look after the property and pay their rent regularly and yet there are letting agents who abuse these tenants. The percentage of young people aged 25-34 years vulnerable to these practices is more than double in 2014, 48% than in 2004 when it was 21% .
Example 1: the hot water heating system failed for three young people in Leeds. They could not afford to run the heating – the only way to obtain hot water. They emailed the agents asking for a repair and there was no response. Telephoning the agent was only allowed for emergencies. If the agent deemed the situation not to be an emergency, a fine of £20 would be levied. This was too great a risk to take. They could not complain for fear of being evicted.
Example 2: the letting agent treating current tenants as new tenants each time someone new moved into their shared house meant four young women in Norwich had to pay the whole individual administrative fee each time one tenant left. It is hard to see how these three figure sums are justified when they have been tenants for some years.
Example 3: a letting agent in Leeds, widely known for poor practice, hides its identity behind another business who does the marketing. At the point of signing the contract the tenant-to-be discovers that the contract is with the agent they intended to avoid. By then, it is too late not to sign and they know they are vulnerable to sharp practices again. The current Housing and Planning Bill proposes to address these issues with rogue letting agents and landlords. The powers are delegated to local councils but according to research by Karen Buck MP despite 51,916 complaints to 120 local councils (2013 figures) on average councils prosecuted fewer than one landlord a year each. The reasoning of the local government minister Marcus Jones for the defeat of the Labour amendment seeking to ensure that all rented accommodation was “safe for people to live in” was that the proposal would result in “unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords.”
Those of us whose work is committed to social justice should not be reassured as yet by this Bill. The suggestions of Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News to start with principles and then to shape the market towards smart outcomes gives hope for a way forward.
Mental health featured twice on the 2 November 2015 news headlines. I follow this as a focus for the youth and social policy module I co-lead at Nottingham Trent University and my personal interest and commitment.
The timing was linked to the Comprehensive Spending Review on 25 November. ‘It will set out how the government will both invest in priority public services and deliver the £20 billion further savings required to eliminate Britain’s deficit by 2019/2020.’ HM Treasury, July 2015. That is the nub of it, to both invest in priority public services and to reduce the deficit.
News item 1 was the letter to government calling for equality between physical and mental health treatment and urging it to accept the need to commit to additional investment in mental health services (my emphasis). This campaign was launched by a cross party trio of former health minister Norman Lamb, Time to Change ambassador and former Labour communications director Alistair Campbell and former Conservative cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell. It was also signed by more than 200 high profile figures. Their list of 10 major concerns included ‘the lack of access to treatment and long waiting times’. This is not new.
In his foreword to the Achieving Better Access to Mental Health Services by 2020 (2014:4) the Rt. Hon. Norman Lamb MP, Minister of State for Care and Support advocated ‘People deserve treatment as soon as their problems emerge, rather than waiting until they are in crisis. They deserve the same standards of access to treatment as people with physical illness. They deserve the same focus on recovery. We have a duty to secure equal rights for people with mental health problems. Nothing less is acceptable.’ The report announced two national waiting time standards for the first time from 1 April 2015 and set out its vision for further progress by 2020. Whilst targeting funding of £40 million in 2014-15 and £80 million in 2015-16 to help people in crisis, further funding was not suggested but rather ‘To make parity of esteem a reality by 2020, we need urgent reforms to the incentives in the system that drive investment and spending.’ This is about targets forcing reallocation of funds from other areas of health. He recognised that this policy follows others with the same intent and ‘today there is still far to travel.’
The second item of news featured Lord Harris’s motion to be debated in the House of Lords on 5 November ‘that this House takes note of the case for taking action to address the problems of young people before they enter the criminal justice system in order to reduce the prison population, improve conditions within prison, and focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners, as set out in The Harris Review: Changing Prisons, Saving Lives.’ His review was published in July 2015. ‘Lord Harris told the BBC that there was "still no sign of a government response" to his recommendations’ (The Telegraph: 29.10.15) His focus is ‘As of 31 December 2014, 101 people under 24 have died in our prisons since April 2007’ through suicide. The report describes how their vulnerabilities were exacerbated by mental health issues and for some were overlaid by negative stereotypes associated with being from BAME backgrounds. He found that these deaths could have been prevented and he argues ‘In all cases, the State had a duty to care for them’. Again, ‘Lessons have not been learned and not enough has been done to bring about substantive change’ in response to recommendations over the last 15 years.’ (2015:8) The need for more staff leads to ‘In particular, it is clear that NOMS cannot deliver these recommendations without a significant investment of resources’ and ‘Delaying action until the resource position is easier is not an option’ due to the loss of lives and the waste of ‘countless millions’ of pounds (2015:13)
These two calls for action to implement agreed and evidenced policy to ensure mental health has equality with physical health and to prevent further loss of young lives through suicide in prison will need public funds in the short term while reducing long term demands for services and costs to society. Will they fall within ‘priority public services’ to be funded in the CSR? We await the CSR to find out.
• Department of Health. (February 2011) No health without mental health: a cross-government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages – a call to action. Gov.uk.
• Department of Health. (January 2014) Closing the gap: priorities for essential change in mental health Also called the Mental Health Action Plan. Gov.uk.
• Department of Health. (15 January 2015) Equality for all: Mental Health Act 1983: Code of Practice 2015 Gov.UK.